Avoiding work party pitfalls

The end of 2014 is fast approaching and as we don our dancing shoes and toast to the successes of the year that was, employers need to remain mindful of the legal and HR risks that work parties can pose.

Whilst the end-of-year work party is a great way to reward staff and promote team bonding, the combination of alcohol and festive cheer can be a recipe for disaster. There are some precautions that employers can take to minimise the risk of a post-party ‘HR hangover’.

Set start and end times for your party (and stick to them)

It is well established (with some exceptions) that work parties are connected to a person’s employment, even when the party takes place offsite. As such, employers continue to owe responsibilities to their staff under Occupational Health & Safety, WorkCover, anti-bullying and equal opportunity legislation. An employer’s obligations may extend beyond the party and there are instances where employers have been held liable for injuries sustained by staff on their journey home.

Employers can seek to minimise any extension of liability by fixing start and end times for parties and adhering to them.

Ensure alcohol is served responsibly

Employers are required to ensure that alcohol is served responsibly. Simple steps such as serving food and offering non-alcoholic and low alcohol beverage options can assist with this. It is useful to have a few sober champions overseeing the party to ensure everyone is acting sensibly.

Organising transport options (such as supplying busses or cab charge vouchers) can help employers ensure staff arrive home safely – particularly those that have been drinking.

Promote your policies

Allegations of sexual harassment and other poor conduct are not uncommon throughout and in the aftermath of work parties. What is deemed as funny to one person can be offensive to another.

Having well drafted policies that set out the required standard of conduct by staff, making it clear that harassment, sexual harassment, bullying and other poor conduct are unacceptable, can help employers fulfil their obligations. Ensuring there is a well-documented complaints process is also important when it comes to dealing with any post-party issues.

Just having these policies and procedures in place is not enough to protect an organisation. Employers are responsible for ensuring their staff are aware of workplace policies and procedures, and understand the standard of behaviour expected of them. There have been numerous cases where employers have sought to rely on policy breaches as a ground for dismissal, only to have a staff member deny any awareness of the policy. The grounds for dismissal did not stack up well.

Re-distributing policies and procedures in the lead up to parties, and providing staff with a friendly reminder about expected behaviour can help minimise the likelihood of any unsavoury behaviour. If a staff member does misbehave, these steps can also assist employers to justify disciplinary action.

Deal with complaints in timely and appropriate manner

If a staff member has engaged in inappropriate conduct, the employer is responsible for ensuring the matter is dealt with in a timely and appropriate manner.

Complaints should be investigated carefully and the alleged offender given a proper opportunity to respond to the allegations against them, prior to any action being taken. Third party witnesses may also need to be consulted.

It is important that confidentiality is maintained throughout the investigation process. With some tactful thinking, a few precautions and a bit of luck, hopefully your work party will be one to remember for the right reasons.

Download a pdf version of this article: Avoiding work party pitfalls

For further information please contact Meagan O’Connor or Jane O’Brien.

Meagan O'Connor
Sladen Legal
+61 3 9611 0106

Jane O'Brien
Senior Associate
Sladen Legal
+61 3 9611 0155